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The secret pigeon service: Heroes who risked all for the birds dropped behind enemy lines who flew home with vital intelligence and left the Nazis flapping

This article was previously published in the Daily Mail on 18 February 2018

Enemy searchlights had caught its outline as the RAF Whitley reached Nieuport on the coast of Nazi-occupied Belgium, and the German batteries opened up. But unscathed, the pilots pressed on, heading inland as instructed.

Just minutes later, passing above the darkened fields of Flanders, the crucial moment had arrived. The flaps of the aircraft were lowered and, from a height of between 600 and 1,000ft, a British ‘agent’ parachuted gently to the ground.

This was July 1941, and an extraordinary new development in the intelligence war with the Wehrmacht was in full swing. So important was the information gleaned from this particular mission, it would end up on Churchill’s desk.

A member of a Royal Air Force aircrew holding a carrier pigeon taking part in Operation Columba beside a Lockheed Hudson of Coastal Command around 1942

An RAF pilot takes a carrier pigeon on board his Halifax bomber before a raid in World War Two – the pigeons were useful – among other things – to take home SOS messages if the plane’s radio was shot up (June 1943)

Secret messages were packed into cylinders that were attached to pigeons’ legs

Yet the figure floating down through the Belgian night was no normal operative, vulnerable to capture, to torture or to worse. For this was Operation Columba, a largely forgotten yet essential weapon in the fight against Nazi Germany, and one that played an important role in turning the fortunes of the War.

And the spy it was despatching behind enemy lines? A pigeon.

I first stumbled across this remarkable tale by chance one morning, while covering a quirky news story for the BBC. The boney leg of a dead pigeon had been found in a chimney in Surrey and attached to it was a message which, after investigation, had stumped even the top code-breakers of GCHQ, unable to decipher a seemingly random series of letters. What might this strange relic mean? No one seemed entirely sure. Could pigeons have been used in the Second World War, perhaps? Again, information was scarce.

My interest piqued, I spent a morning in the National Archives in Kew, West London, pulling up any and every relevant file – and one of the bundles that landed on my desk immediately stood out. Marked with the words ‘Secret’ and ‘Columba’, it contained compelling details of an operation, including tiny pink slips of paper that transpired on closer inspection to be messages from ordinary people living in occupied Europe.

They had clearly been brought back to Britain by pigeon. Filled with the day-to-day realities of wartime, the slips offered an intriguing insight into the small frustrations and dark tragedies of life under occupation.

None of them, however, compared with the one labelled Message Number 37. More like a work of art than an official document, it contained tiny, beautiful inky writing, too small to read with the naked eye and densely packed into an unimaginably small space. And detailed, colourful maps. Who had written it? And what had happened to them? There was little to work with as the message was identified with no more than a code-name – Leopold Vindictive.

After three years of searching, I finally found my answer in rural Belgium. The story of this unlikely spying mission began in April 1941. There had been attempts to drop secret agents behind German lines since the summer of 1940, but they were perilous. Some agents died before they hit the ground. Others were captured all too quickly.

So slim were the intelligence pickings that the secret services were even instructed to see if a Yorkshire astrologer and water diviner known as ‘Smokey Joe’ could help. MI6 had agents abroad, but the human networks were a mess.

In 1940, it was even claimed that German troops in Norway were practising the bagpipes and training to swim ashore wearing green watertight suits. And so an unlikely new strategy was devised – of dropping homing pigeons into occupied Europe in the hope they would fall into the hands of sympathisers who would send them home with information useful to the Allies.

Each bird would be placed in a special box with a parachute attached, and a tiny green Bakelite cylinder – about the size of a pen top – was placed around one leg.On the outside of each container was an envelope with a questionnaire, written in Dutch or French, some rice paper for the return message, a pencil, and a bag of pigeon food.

The latest edition of a resistance newspaper printed in London was enclosed, or sometimes a copy of the Daily Mail, to prove the bird had come from England.

Details of the operation were kept secret from the pigeon fanciers who volunteered the birds. So who was behind this outlandish mission?

Today, everyone is familiar with MI5 and MI6, but few have heard of MI14, let alone its sub-section MI14(d). Its job was to understand the German occupation of Western Europe. Working out of a basement room in the War Office in Central London, it initially comprised just two officers: Brian Melland, a former theatrical actor, and ‘Sandy’ Sanderson, who had served with the Highland Division in the First World War. This was the unit in charge of the Secret Pigeon Service.

Operation Columba got under way on the night of April 8, 1941. A Whitley crossed into Belgium near Zeebrugge then headed for the French border, where the pigeons in their containers were pushed out. Two days later, in the bowels of the War Office, at 10.30am, MI14’s phone started ringing. The first bird had made its way home to its owner in Kent. Columba message number one was phoned in.

It had come from a village called Le Briel in northern France and contained real information. ‘Pigeon found Wednesday 9th at 8am,’ it began. ‘The German troop movements are always at night. There are 50 Germans in every Commune. There is a large munitions dump at Herzeele 200 metres from the railway station. Yesterday, a convoy of Horse Artillery passed towards Dunkirk… The Bosches do not mention an invasion of England. Their morale is not too good. The RAF… should come to bomb the brick works as the proprietor is a …’ The next word was marked as ‘illegible’.

The message ended with ‘I await your return, I am and remain a Frenchman.’ At 3pm, message number two arrived, this time from Flanders.

‘There are only a few troops here and no petrol dumps,’ it read. ‘But yesterday some artillery arrived and the men say they are going to Yugoslavia where other troops and wagons are also moving.’

After three months, 221 birds had been flown into occupied territory, many from Newmarket racecourse – home to a top-secret RAF squadron whose job was to carry out ‘Special Duties’ for British intelligence – and released over Flanders, Normandy and Brittany. Forty-six had returned, 19 with messages, of which 17 contained information.

Often people were fearful at discovering a spy pigeon, and understandably so. Many decided it was better the pigeon died than they did. Some villagers even made the choice more palatable by roasting and eating the bird. Others went straight to the local police station or Nazi occupiers in return for a reward.

The people responsible for the remarkable Message 37 were braver than that, and fiercely anti-Nazi. The pigeon and its container had been retrieved in July 1941 from fields near Lichtervelde by an unnamed Belgian farmer. Concealing them in a sack of potatoes, he took them to the Debaillies, a patriotic family of two sisters and three brothers who ran a corner shop.

One of the brothers, Michel, was a pigeon fancier. The Debaillies summoned two family friends, Hector Joye, a former soldier with a love of military maps, and a Catholic priest, Father Joseph Raskin, who had worked as an intelligence gatherer sketching German military positions during the First World War to aid allied reconnaissance. Brothers Arseen and Gabriel drove along the coast and through the neighbourhoods around Bruges, taking notes.

Joye gathered intelligence on a chateau occupied by German troops. Raskin tapped church-goers for information.

After a few days, the priest set about transferring the maps and the wealth of information to the two tiny sheets of rice paper. He worked through the night of July 11 using a magnifying glass and a fine-tipped pen until all the space was filled.

The rice paper was folded and placed inside the cylinder attached to the pigeon’s foot. Then the group did something contrary to every rule of spycraft: they stood for a family portrait in a courtyard behind the shop. At first sight, it could be any other family picture, but look more closely and you can see that Marie, the elder sister, is holding a resistance newspaper, Margaret is holding the parachute. Arseen holds a pencil, Gabriel the British intelligence questionnaire, and Michel clutches the pigeon.

In front of them, is a chalkboard with the dates of the bird’s arrival and departure, its ring number and the phrase ‘Via Engeland’ to mark its destination. And at the top are three capital V’s – the symbol of Victory. Climbing up on to the roof, Michel then released the bird. At 8.15am the pigeon rose high into the sky, circled to get its bearings, then made for the Channel and home. By 3.30pm, it was back at its loft in Lattice Avenue, Ipswich, with the canister arriving in the War Office on July 13.

Homing pigeons played an important role in both world wars – their homing ability, speed and ability to get to high altitudes meant they were often used as military messengers

Melland pulled out the first sheet of paper, nine inches square, and the closer he looked, the more astonished he was. The transcript came to a remarkable 5,000 words and took up 12 pages. It was gold dust. It indicated hidden German emplacements, munitions depots and fuel dumps. It highlighted a telephone exchange and nearly a dozen factories playing a role in the German war effort.

There were precise battle damage assessments of recent British raids in Brussels. A map showed a château that was the central communications installation for German High Command in the whole sector. Message 37 rapidly made its way around Whitehall and was shown to Churchill himself. It represented more than just a collection of useful facts. It summed up a spirit of resistance, confirming to Britain’s leaders that some of those living under the tyranny of Nazi occupation were willing to risk their lives to help.

Mary, a carrier pigeon, was hit by shrapnel, wounded by pellets and attacked by German war hawks as she flew over the Pas De Calais

The message was signed with the codename ‘Leopold Vindictive’ and asked for a response on the Dutch and Belgian BBC radio news. On July 15, only three days after Michel had set the bird free, the Belgians heard this on their radio: ‘Leopold Vindictive 200, the key fits the lock and the bird is in the lion’s cage.’ Sadly, the Leopold Vindictive story does not have a happy ending.

The group of amateur spies gathered more intelligence but future pigeon drops failed to reach them. In growing frustration, they trusted a chain of resistance contacts but the Germans closed in. They arrested and tried Raskin, Joye and Arseen Debaillie. On October 18, 1943, in Dortmund, all three were guillotined.

But still Operation Columba pressed on. Between April 1941 and September 1944, a total of 16,554 pigeons would be dropped in an arc from Copenhagen in Denmark to Bordeaux in the South of France. Only one in ten made it back alive. Some were lost on planes shot down before they had a chance to be released. Some lay unfound in a field.

The Germans responded of course. Rewards were offered and punishments were draconian. An MI6 agent reported that a notice displayed in one Belgian town offered 625 francs to anyone who delivered a British pigeon. Rumours began to emerge that the Germans were planting false pigeons to trap people.

Marksmen were stationed on the coast of northern France while a Columba report from the Loire Valley said that pigeons fell into enemy hands after a German observation post spotted the RAF flight passing overhead.

But Operation Columba’s most deadly foe proved to be a natural one. It was the hawk. German hawks were flown along the coast from Belgium, France and the Netherlands to catch and kill Columba birds as they headed for Britain.

Yet the ones that survived more than proved their worth, helping to pave the way for D-Day and victory.

And for the French and the Belgians living under Nazi occupation, there was something else besides: the hope that these remarkable birds, released up into the freedom of the skies, would race back safely to their homes and help free their nation from tyranny.

© Gordon Corera, 2018


Gordon Corera is a journalist and the author of several books on intelligence and security issues. Since 2004 he has been a Security Correspondent for BBC News, where he covers terrorism, cyber security, the work of intelligence agencies and other national security issues.

He will be speaking at CVHF on Friday 29th June about the Secret Pigeon Service – tickets are available here.

D-Day: By Those Who Were There

Audio from a talk at Chalke Valley History Festival on Saturday 28th June 2014 with Geoff Pattinson and David Render, chaired by Stuart Tootal.

In the 70th Anniversary year of the D-Day landings in Normandy, we were very fortunate to have two veterans of that campaign talking about their experiences. Fred Glover was in 9 Para, and David Render served with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. Chairing the discussion was Stuart Tootal, former Commander of 3 Para in Afghanistan. This was a rare treat.

Rationed Fashion & Victory Rolls: Women’s Fashion in the 1940s

This year at CVHF, some hugely significant anniversaries are being marked by the 1940s themed weekend; namely, 75 years since the Battle of Britain and 70 years since the end of World War Two. You can find out more about the wonderful events taking place over the weekend here, but for anyone joining in with ‘dress up Saturday’ – and the 1945 Victory Party on Saturday night – read on for an introduction to 1940s fashion, and some tips to keep your costumes authentic!

Women’s Fashion in World War Two

During the war clothing took on new significance in women’s lives. Many donned uniforms for the first time and performed tasks it was never imagined they were capable of, such as flying Spitfires and felling trees. Yet despite adopting these masculine roles, they were also asked by the government to maintain their femininity. Magazines and films instructed women to keep their clothes fashionable and faces presentable to keep up morale, while propaganda stressed the importance of thrift, asking women to stitch, patch and darn not only their own clothes but those of their whole families. But for many the famous austerity measures were nothing new – they had been mending and making-do their whole lives.

Lucie Whitmore - 1. 'Make do and Mend' dressmaking class, London, 1943 (C) IWM (D 12897)jpg

‘Make do and Mend’ dressmaking class, London, 1943 (C) IWM (D 12897)

There are three major influences that helped to define World War Two fashion.
The first, clothes rationing, was introduced in June 1941, when every civilian was given 60 coupons per year, though this later reduced to 48. Nearly all garments were assigned a coupon value relative to the amount of material and labour involved in production. As an example, a dress would cost between 7 and 11 coupons. The second, Utility (also known as CC41), was a scheme introduced by the government in February 1942 when shortages were becoming more problematic, despite rationing. The scheme, which eventually covered shoes, furniture and household goods as well as clothing and cloth, aimed to make best possible use of scarce raw supplies by carefully controlling manufacture processes, from fabric production to cutting techniques. The scheme also guaranteed a constant supply of good quality civilian clothing in a range of price brackets, meaning that well made garments were affordable to all, not just the elite.

Lucie Whitmore - 2. Utility fashions, 1943 © IWM (D 14818)

Utility fashions, 1943 © IWM (D 14818)

These measures were necessary not only because Britain was deprived of many of its imports and had to become more self-sufficient, but also because factories and workers were desperately needed for the war effort, and couldn’t be spared for the clothes trade. Unrelenting austerity and shortages resulted in a national obsession with repairing, recycling and re-inventing. The government ran numerous campaigns to prevent wastage and promote economy:  such as ‘Mrs Sew & Sew’ and the famous ‘Make-Do-and-Mend’ campaign – which gave advice on topics such as how to make clothes last. Though ubiquitous today, some women living through the war hadn’t even heard of the campaign; it simply didn’t apply to them. In the words of Julia Matthews, who worked in a factory in Staines during the war, ‘Times were very tough before the war… and so the need to be creative, make things out of old scraps and discarded items was not new just because of the war – it had been a necessity for many years…’ (Matthews, 2010)

Lucie Whitmore - 3. Propaganda poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6079)

Propaganda poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6079)

Trends in fashion during the war were largely shaped by these austerity driven schemes, and the necessary restrictions in tailoring. A notable trend was the military influence; evident in women’s tailoring, and embodied in a squared shoulder and defined waist. But clothing from the era is particularly recognisable for its ingenuity and resourcefulness; multi-coloured knitwear re-made by unravelling various worn out garments, Utility dresses with straight cut skirts and barely any seam allowance, and accessories re-modelled from something long unworn by a husband or brother. World War Two fashion does not, despite these impediments, appear frumpy or unappealing however; it has acquired a romance and nostalgia, and remains a joy to study or re-create in the present day. The three dresses pictured below, all original 1940s garments, show that colours were vivid and patterns cheerful.

Lucie Whitmore - 4. (Left) Utility dress, © Edinburgh Museums & Galleries (Centre) Blue forties dress and (Right)  printed Utility dress, © Lucie Whitmore

1940s Day Dress

Tweed or wool skirt and jacket with blouse
Skirt and blouse with knitted cardigan
Printed cotton, rayon or linen dress: narrow waists, exaggerated lapels, button down fronts, waist ties, below the knee hem, A-line skirt.
Occasionally slacks, or loose fitting trousers, for women – but only on casual occasions or for work.
Brogues flat or with low heel, clogs,

1940s Evening dress

(‘Evening dress’ almost ceased to exist during the war; the following would be appropriate for a party or evening event!)
Blouse and skirt (straight cut, peg top, A-line)
1930s dresses (possibly altered or re-made)
Day dresses – below knee/calf length, shoulder length sleeves, floral popular. Linen, cotton, rayon, synthetics
1930s accessories
Chunky heeled leather shoes – often made from wood or cork, with platform
Knitwear – cardigan, often with decorative wool embroidery

Hair and Make-up

(Also restricted due to shortages!)
Dye legs with builders sand, coffee or oxo, draw stocking ‘seam’ up back of the leg with eye pencil
Beetroot juice or cochineal for lipstick
Candle soot for a smoky eye-shadow
Victory Rolls or glamorous curls for the evening, headscarf turban for day.

Lucie Whitmore - 5. VJ celebrations in London, August 1945 © IWM (EA 75894)

VJ celebrations in London, August 1945 © IWM (EA 75894)

If you are interested in the history of forties fashion, or looking for more style ideas, the following books may be of interest:

Griffith, Suzanne. Stitching for Victory. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2009.

Summers, Julie. Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War. London: Profile Books, 2015.

Tregenza, Liz. Style Me Vintage: 1940s. London: Pavilion Books, 2015.

Walford, Jonathon. Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.


lucie bw picWomen’s Fashion During the Great War

On Saturday, 27th June at 5pm, fashion historian, Lucie Whitmore, will be giving a ‘Pop Up History’ talk at Chalke Valley History Festival, discussing how women’s fashion changed and was influenced by the conflict, and how we can study the garments today to learn more about women’s experience of war.

Dunkirk Ace – the first Spitfire pilot to win his spurs

Stanford TuckBob Stanford Tuck was every inch the fighter pilot as if ordered up from Central Casting; brave, good-looking, a crack shot and a superb aviator. The London boy who did not excel at school and nearly made the Merchant Navy his career, was to become the first Spitfire Ace in May 1940 in the skies above northern France.

Tuck combined excellent flying skills with being a superb shot. He had grown up with shotguns and game shooting, and practiced with clays regularly throughout his service career with Fighter Command. When moved to the Hurricane-equipped No 257 Squadron, he set up a clay pigeon shoot at the squadron dispersal at RAF Coltishall. But that was six months after Dunkirk.

In May 1940, Tuck was transferred from No 65 Squadron at RAF Duxford to No 92 Squadron at RAF Croydon in Kent. During his two years at Duxford, he had proved his fighting and leadership skills making him an ideal choice for the junior flight commander slot.

Paul Beaver - history hub planesAs the Battle of France hotted-up and the Allied armies were thrown back towards the North Sea and Channel coasts, the Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command released Spitfires to operate over the Continent. Tuck led a section of Spitfires to escort Winston Churchill in one of his attempts to rally the forlorn French government in Paris; it was the first time that Spitfire fighters – as opposed to the still secret high altitude photo-reconnaissance variants – had ‘overnighted’ overseas.

Tuck’s big chance to demonstrate his training in a dogfight came on 23 May, somewhere in the vicinity of Dunkirk, which was not yet the centre of that great military evacuation for which the seaport is now famous, but it was still the centre of aerial action. The Luftwaffe was attempting to deny reinforcements to the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force and the Channel ports were prime targets.

Tuck clay-pigeon shooting (RAFM)On 23 May, British ground forces were ordered to evacuate Arras, the main communications hub in that part of France. The British commander, General the Lord Gort wanted to concentrate his forces to protect the ports of embarkation such as Boulogne which was already under assault from the German Second Panzer Division. It was against this background that standing patrols were launched from airfields in Kent and Surrey to interdict the Luftwaffe operations then supporting the Panzer assault.

Tuck opened his score with three conclusive and witnessed victories against the Luftwaffe with three Messerschmitt Bf 109s downed on 23rd May followed by two Dornier bombers the next day.

The Spitfire had first met the German fighter some 10 days before so both sides were still feeling their way in the development of fighter tactics. Unlike, Fighter Command, however, many German pilots had the advantage of previous service the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. That lack of experience did not seem to affect Tuck’s fighting spirit.

Tuck’s career literally took off. Not only was he the first Spitfire ace but he had rapidly moved up the promotion ladder within No 92 Squadron, taking over as the senior flight commander and then assuming command when Squadron Leader  Phillip Sanders  was reported missing. Tuck was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 11 June.

Fighter Command’s commander-in-chief, Air Chief Marshal Dowding saw Tuck’s potential and promoted him to acting Squadron Leader and gave him a Hurricane squadron at RAF Coltishall in Norfolk to command. Despite being shot down and imprisoned in German-occupied Poland, Tuck finished the war with 27 enemy aircraft destroyed. After a brief spell in the post-war Royal Air Force, he left the service and became a mushroom farmer.


Paul Beaver in Spitfire sep14Paul Beaver is an aviation historian and pilot who will be speaking on “Dunkirk – the misunderstood triumph of Air Power” at the Chalke Valley History Festival on Sunday, 28th June 2015. His latest book, “Spitfire People”, the result of a talk at Chalke Valley last year, goes on sale from 18th June.

Exclusive interview with Dan Snow

Xander Drury interviews leading historian and broadcaster Dan Snow on the opening day of Chalke Valley History Festival 2014, speaking on what makes history such an important and special subject as well as sharing his thoughts on D-Day, the World Cup and Twitter.

Dan Snow at CVHF14

Xander Drury in conversation with Dan Snow